NEW DELHI: By doing foreign policy differently — as the Modi government completes its third year in office — India has challenged conventional thinking even though the effects of these actions in the longer term still need to be assessed.
Working backwards chronologically, India’s recent decision to skip the much-hyped ‘Belt & Road Forum’ (BRF) in Beijing, was contrary to India’s traditional reluctance to publicly confront China’s hegemonic ambitions.
India clearly articulated objections to OBOR and CPEC (China-Pakistan economic corridor) on the basis of sovereignty. India laid out why it believed OBOR to be exploitative, colonial in its lack of transparency and the way it created unsustainable debt in “partner” countries and caused environmental damage.
While some nations were gearing up to praise China’s massive utilisation of excess capacities, India’s reaction proved to be a dampener for the Chinese.
For some in India, signing up for OBOR would have been less painful, and apparently pragmatic. The Modi government concluded its unusual reaction was in keeping with India’s traditional opposition to China-Pakistan activities in POK. And that going by Sri Lanka’s experience and perhaps even Pakistan’s, the openly mercantilist policies of China need to be publicly opposed.
As it turned out, the EU too backed away from a trade statement using similar arguments. Political ties with China have gone steadily downhill in the past couple of years, though interestingly FDI from China has risen significantly in the Modi years.
China has emerged as one of the fastest-growing sources of FDI into India — it was 17th largest in 2016, up from the 28th in 2014 and 35th in 2011.
Matters have not been helped by China stymying India’s bid for NSG membership and protecting Pakistan-based Jaish terrorist Masood Azhar from sanctions. Early this year, foreign secretary S Jaishankar promised China would get a lot more attention from India, in order to put the relationship back on the rails.
The two countries continue working together on some areas, but the promise held out when Chinese President Xi Jinping and Modi swung gently on a Gujarati swing in 2014, has dissipated.
India has paid much greater attention to its near neighbourhood, sans Pakistan. Bangladesh has been the template for a new kind of engagement. While neighbours traditionally get a large chunk of Indian assistance, it was largely unstructured.
India has now decided to focus on around 20 visible projects for Bangladesh, which will utilise the $4.5 billion in LOC assistance. India will follow a similar approach in Sri Lanka, which recently saw a second Modi visit. India has also worked hard to create a Saarc minus Pakistan, in order to beat its clasp on India’s neighborhood outreach.
In 2016, the BRICS summit saw the revival of BIMSTEC, while a sub-regional cooperation initiative, BBIN, is slowly coming together, creating transport and power networks in the east.
Earlier this month, India launched the south Asia satellite that signalled cooperation without a direct quid pro quo. One of Modi’s signature initiatives has been westwards, in his new ‘Link West’ policy, to mirror the ‘Act East’.
As Modi prepares to travel to Israel, his visit comes as virtually the last stop after unexpectedly intense engagement with the UAE, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Iran, in addition to Oman.
Strong economic imperatives, infrastructure investment and India’s desire to play a greater security role over shared concerns over threats like the terror group IS drive India’s outreach. This is also intended to wean these nations away from Pakistan as India peddles a “better narrative”.The India-Pakistan relationship is in deep freeze, with little daylight visible. Again, Modi used surprise as a tactical weapon. After a series of terror attacks against Indian defence installations from across the border, India retaliated with surgical strikes on terror launch-pads in POK.
On August 15, from the Red Fort ramparts, Modi uttered the forbidden “B”-word, speaking of the “oppression” of the people of Balochistan.
Pakistan choked in anger and later arrested Kulbhushan Jadhav, a former Navy man, as an alleged spy. After a military court announced a death sentence on Jadhav, India adopted a creative and bold approach — upending decades of conventional wisdom yet again by going to the International Court of Justice and pulling off a vital win.